I like this new thing of lecturing improv. I feel that it helps the audience stay focused, as they have to keep the structure of the talk in their heads while it’s happening. Also it enforces more logic in my own presentation, as I’m continually looping back to remind myself and the audience how each part fits into the general theme. It’s like a 40-minute-long story, with scene, plot, character development, a beginning, middle, and end.
Yes, sometimes it helps to show graphs or code as part of this, but I can pull that up as needed during a talk. It doesn’t need to be on “slides.”
My overall aim is for a Stewart Lee-type experience. OK, not exactly. For one thing, Lee isn’t doing improv; he practices and hones his act until he knows exactly what’s going where. But that’s a bit different because the standards are higher for stand-up entertainment than for an academic talk. So I don’t need to be so polished.
I’ve also been running my classroom lectures on the improv principle, riffing from homeworks, readings, and jitts and using students’ questions as the fuel to keep things moving along. That’s been going well too, I think, but I need to work more on the organization. When I give a colloquium or conference talk, I’m in control and can structure the time how I want and make sure everything fits within the larger story; but in class it seems to make sense to follow more closely the students’ particular needs, and then I’ll end up talking on things for which I hadn’t prepared, and it’s easy for me to get lost in the details of some examples and lose the main thread, thus reducing what the students get out of the class (I think).
The interesting thing is how long it’s taken me to get to this point. I’ve been giving talks in conferences for just about 30 years, and my style keeps changing. I’ve gone from acetate transparency sheets to handouts, back to transparencies, back to handouts, then to power point and pdf, then to the stage of removing as many words from the slides as possible, then removing even more words and using lots of pictures, now to this new stage of no slides at all. I like where I am now, but maybe in 5 years we’ll all be doing something completely different.